Categories
Sermons

Love, Theology, and Vaccinations – Terumah 5781

I was recently asked by a member of the congregation, with whom I was meeting via Zoom, “Rabbi Adelson, what’s your take on God?”

I glanced at the time in the lower right corner of my screen. We had 17 minutes until my next Zoom meeting, and we had not yet discussed the other items about which we were ostensibly meeting.

I apologized first by saying that we did not have time to properly cover the subject, but I stumbled through a clearly-unprepared elevator pitch which indirectly referenced Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan (“the process that makes for salvation”) and Martin Buber (the Unconditional Thou) and Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (“radical amazement”). And then I suggested we discuss God again at a follow-up meeting.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan

Lurking in the background, of course, was the question of the pandemic, and the classic conundrum regarding theodicy, that is, explaining the theology of human suffering. If I really, truly, believe that God is there for us and is benevolent, how can we account for a pandemic that has caused us so much misery?

I must concede that I detest the sort of theology, and the kind of rabbi, that declares that human suffering is the result of our misbehavior. Yes, the Torah states that in many places; the second paragraph of the Shema is a prime example, when it effectively says, “If you do the mitzvot, you receive rain and healthy crops and fertility and you will eat and live well, and if you do not do the mitzvot, the skies will dry up and you will suffer.” That is not a theology that I can accept. And although it certainly has its adherents in Jewish thought, it also has many detractors.

Rather, I continually return to the idea that our deeds, guided by the framework of mitzvot which God has given us, help make this world a better place for ourselves and for others. We have the opportunity, every day and all day long, to improve ourselves and our world by acting on the Jewish imperative to follow this code of behavior. And it is in this way that God works through us to counter the forces of chaos and evil that bring us down.

I read a few days ago that, according to the National Center for Health Statistics, life expectancy for Americans decreased by about 2 years in 2020. That seems like a shockingly high decrease, but I suppose it is not surprising, given our circumstances.

And the question that we face every single day is, when will this end?

Let’s go ahead and throw God into this one: When will God end this?

And the answer is, when we humans fully understand that we are partners with God in this endeavor, in a loving, holy framework.

As that Kaplanite process that makes for salvation, God is there with us as we continue to seek and to deliver vaccines. God is with us as Buber’s Unconditional Thou when we mask up and stay away from each other to prevent further spread. God is with us when we are simply struck dumb with awe at our present circumstances, and perhaps our inability to discern God or grasp God’s presence in our lives at this time, as we peer heavenward and call out, in the words of Psalm 130, “MiMaamaqim” – from the depths.

As we all know, there is good news on the horizon. Different research groups around the world have produced vaccines that will come to our rescue. And yet, the horizon seems, for many of us, impossibly far away. Ad matai, we ask in the words of Psalm 94, which we recite every Wednesday, until when? For how much longer must we be distant from one another? 

One current line of thinking, promoted by Dr. Anthony Fauci, for one, is that we need to get to an 85% vaccination rate before herd immunity will be effective at preventing the spread of the disease. I heard that number, and I thought, “How on Earth are we going to get to 85%?” During an ordinary year, the rate of influenza vaccination is about 50% or less. (For example, here.) Perhaps we have a better shot at a higher rate due to our extraordinary situation – far more people are aware of the nature of the pandemic and the numbers of people who are dying from COVID-19 than might be paying attention to the flu from year to year. But 85%?

How are we going to cut through all that vaccine skepticism, and misinformation spread by social media, and reach all of those people who have been misled to believe that this is all one giant hoax, or that the vaccines contain microchips?

I think there is only one way to do so, and it is hinted at in Parashat Terumah, which we read today. Right up front, the parashah includes a curious commandment from God (Shemot / Exodus 25:2):

דַּבֵּר֙ אֶל־בְּנֵ֣י יִשְׂרָאֵ֔ל וְיִקְחוּ־לִ֖י תְּרוּמָ֑ה מֵאֵ֤ת כָּל־אִישׁ֙ אֲשֶׁ֣ר יִדְּבֶ֣נּוּ לִבּ֔וֹ תִּקְח֖וּ אֶת־תְּרוּמָתִֽי׃

Tell the Israelite people to bring Me gifts; you shall accept gifts for Me from every person whose heart so moves him.

What does the word “terumah” mean? Here, the translation is “gifts,” although that is a poor approximation. A better read is, “donation,” but the shoresh, the root of the word, is actually resh-vav-mem, meaning, to lift up. So these donations were actually a means of lifting up the donors.

And the latter half of the verse goes even further. It’s not just a donation, but a donation that relies upon the heart of the donor. Every Israelite “whose heart so moves,” shall donate. (Later in the Torah, in Parashat Vayaqhel, Moshe has to instruct the Israelites to STOP bringing more materials for the mishkan. Their generosity is overflowing!)

So why did I describe this as curious? God could have commanded the Israelites to bring the stuff for the mishkan, like a tax. God could have made it mandatory. But instead, God relied in this case on their generosity, of their willingness to be elevated through donation, to make this happen. Seems like an unreliable system, no?

And yet, it worked! The internal motivation succeeded, perhaps better than the external command.

There has been a flurry of articles lately about the challenge of combating falsehoods. Certainly part of the driving force behind the insurrection on January 6 was the power and reach of conspiracy theories that are spread mainly via social media. And many of us know people who have been taken in by this dangerous sewer of lies, people with whom we cannot even have a reasonable conversation, because they are not living in the same universe as we are. 

And from what I have read, it seems that the best antidote to a loved one who has succumbed to falsehood is not to try to prove them wrong, or to prove that QAnon is false or that certain public figures are not satanic pedophiles. Rather, the way to reach out to them is through love. To be there, to try to maintain a healthy relationship. If we break those relationships, the situation will only get worse. We cannot allow the mehitzah, the dividing barrier between people to continue to grow; that is a certain recipe for future disaster.

And so too with the vaccine. The only way that we will be able to get to 85% is to reach out to those whom we love, and remind them that we love them. Will there be some that still say no? Of course. But if we create this overflowing, overpowering fountain of love for one another, we might create a space in which all of our hearts are moved; we have a better chance than simply mandating.

Call me naive, but love is the only way to make this all happen. Perhaps this seems like a counter-intuitive strategy. But so too is God’s request for gifts for the mishkan.

The mishkan / portable desert sanctuary

Remember that we are in a partnership with God here, and together, we might be able to move some hearts. We will have to rely on the generosity of the human spirit, in the context of the Godly relationship, for this to happen. Together, in this human-divine relationship, we can get there. We can achieve redemption; we can lift each other up through love. That is one lesson we might learn from Terumah.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 2/20/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

Watermelons and Seeds: Yitro 5781

A technique that my children learned in school about writing is the concept of “watermelon ideas” and “seed ideas.” (They did not teach me this when I was in elementary school.)

A “watermelon idea” is a big, general plot point without which the story will not make sense or hold together: “Alice takes a magical trip to Wonderland,” or “The rebels fight back against Darth Vader and the Empire.” Seed ideas are details that, if omitted, will not throw the whole story off: “While she is only a few inches tall, Alice receives advice from a curious caterpillar who is sitting on a mushroom and smoking a hookah,” or, “Luke learns Jedi techniques from a small, frog-like creature named Yoda.” Big concepts vs. small details. You can see why the watermelon and seeds analogy is useful and easy to understand.

The powerful moment that we read this morning in Parashat Yitro is the Sinai encounter between Israel and God. This is one big, huge watermelon sitting there in the middle of Shemot / Exodus.

Dr. Martin Buber, one of the greatest modern Jewish philosophers, saw in the Sinai moment a Big Idea that was really just a bunch of little ideas. Akin to his understanding of God as being immediately present and unconditionally in touch with us at all times, the Mt. Sinai moment is an attempt to dramatize the infinitesimal communications with the Divine presence that we constantly have. In his monumental work, I and Thou, he wrote:

The mighty revelations to which the religions appeal are like in being with the quiet revelations that are to be found everywhere and at all times. The mighty revelations which stand at the beginning of great communities and at the turning-point of an age are nothing but the eternal revelation. But the revelation does not pour itself into the world through him who receives it as through a funnel; it comes to him and seizes his whole elemental being in all its particular nature, and fuses with it. 

Martin Buber

Buber’s point is that the Mt. Sinai moment is really NOT a watermelon, as the Torah describes; it is a myriad of seeds which are always with us.

Meanwhile, Buber’s colleague, Franz Rosenzweig, takes the Sinai moment in a different direction. “For Rosenzweig,” wrote my teacher Rabbi Neil Gillman, “The content of revelation is simply the fact of revelation, God’s entering into a unique relationship with Israel.” (Sacred Fragments, p. 23). In other words, this is a watermelon with no particular seeds, but its existence is essential to us.

Contemporary philosophy aside, our traditional understanding is that there are 613 seeds in this watermelon (not just the Top Ten identified in Yitro. There is a midrash that suggests that the fruit on the Tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil in the Garden of Eden was, of course, a pomegranate, since pomegranates have 613 seeds. I have never been able to actually confirm this figure, but it seems totally reasonable.)

And really, each of those mitzvot is only a starting point. But they have a shared intent: to lead us to a heightened awareness of each other, to highlight the holiness in all of our relationships, such that we are all pursuing the common good together

As you may know, that is how I understand the halakhic system. We fulfill the mitzvot of the Torah not just because it says so, but rather because that system creates a framework of holiness, through which we can improve our lives and the lives of those around us.

But let’s face it: the Torah is not just ONE watermelon. It’s lots of ‘em! And then there are other gourds: squash! Cucumbers! An occasional pumpkin!

OK, so at this point I have clearly beaten this metaphor to death. 

But the point is this: the Torah, meaning the Five Books of Moses, and Torah in its larger sense, that is, all of the teaching on the Jewish bookshelf, has its big ideas and its details. 

For example:

Watermelon: Zakhor et yom haShabbat lekaddesho. Remember the Sabbath day to sanctify it, as we read this morning. (Shemot / Exodus 20:8)

Seeds: (Well, really there are 39 sub-gourds for this one.) Do not kindle a fire on Shabbat; do have a joyous Shabbat meal with family

Watermelon: Ve-ahavta lereiakha kamokha. Love your neighbor as yourself. (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:18)

Seeds: Give tzedaqah to charities that feed the hungry and house the homeless.

We could clearly play this game for a while. But I want to take this metaphor in a slightly different direction.

Watermelon: Al tifrosh min hatzibbur. Do not separate yourself from the community. (Pirqei Avot 2:5)

Seeds: You should belong to a synagogue and show up from time to time – not only to fulfill the mitzvah of prayer, but also to schmooze with friends, to welcome guests, to comfort the bereaved, and a whole bunch of other seeds.

And let’s face it: one of the biggest ideas of Jewish life is community. Qehillah. You may remember it as one of the three essential principles that I began my rabbinic journey with here at Beth Shalom five-and-a-half years ago. We are a communal people. Judaism is fundamentally a tradition that revolves around community. You cannot be Jewish alone. You might say that it is both an explicit message of the words of Torah, and an implicit message of the Sinai moment.

One of the biggest challenges that we have faced in this pandemic world is that we cannot gather. We cannot rub elbows over kiddush. We cannot meet new people while strolling through the halls of Beth Shalom, or waiting to pick up our kids after JJEP, or interacting with each other at a talk or a service or even at a shiv’ah house.

This is something that is really huge, that we are all missing right now. None of the various online platforms are satisfying substitutes for the chance encounters, the opportunities to make somebody else’s day with a well-chosen word, the simple pleasure of being around others, that make up the spectrum of human interaction. I feel this dissatisfaction on a daily basis. I feel this need. And I would not even really describe myself as a “people person.” (I’m more of an old-dusty-book person, truth be told.)

But I miss you. And I miss the yous, the yinz, whom I am not seeing, whom I do not even know. We have people every week who come to our online Shabbat services as visitors, and it kills me that I cannot personally greet you, shake your hand, engage with you briefly in meaningful conversation, give you a sense of what a convivial group of folks we are, and welcome you aboard our journey of learning and living Torah.

I miss the opportunities to raise the bar of holiness around me through the regular, personal interactions that make up our lives when we are not isolated from one another.

If the watermelon here is community, the seeds are the holy opportunities we have each day to make this world a better place through our own actions. And I am not speaking here specifically of tzedaqah, although of course that is important. I am, rather, talking about how we interact: about greeting others with a cheerful face (Pirqei Avot 1:15); about being ohev shalom verodef shalom, loving and pursuing peace (Pirqei Avot 1:12), about avoiding lashon hara, the evil tongue (Vayiqra / Leviticus 19:16-17).

Here’s a seed for you that could very easily be its own watermelon: Build a rail around your roof (Devarim / Deuteronomy 22:8). We are responsible for the safety of others. I was thinking of this on Thursday as I took a night-time stroll around the neighborhood. I try to get outside every day for a walk – it helps with my sanity as well as my physical health; sometimes I don’t get out until late. And I would estimate that about a third of the property owners in our shtetl of Squirrel Hill had shoveled their sidewalks after the snow that came earlier in the week. This is not only a city ordinance, but also a law from the Torah: we respect each other’s safety. We build railings on our roofs so people do not fall off; by interpolation, we shovel snow and make sure that our sidewalks are not icy, so people do not fall. But we also are careful with how we drive, and the products we sell, and of course the masks that we wear right now so as not to cause physical harm to others. All of these are variants on the “rail” seed: it is up to us as individuals to make sure that others are safe.

What is a community, if not a group of people who are committed to all of the little ways in which we respect, protect, and honor one another? 

Hevreh, while the vaccine roll-out has been off to a rocky start, I am hopeful that as the production ramps up, as new vaccines come available, as the county and the state figure out how to do this correctly, we will return to normal. We will be able to interact with one another once again; we will be able to go to the grocery store without feeling anxious; we will gather and sing and talk normally in this building and everywhere else.

And we will once again be able to act on all of those opportunities for elevating the holiness around us, to emphasize the seeds as we rebuild the sense of community.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, 2/6/2021.)

Categories
Sermons

I’m a Fundamentalist: God – Bereshit 5780

I am always captivated by Bereshit, the beginning of the Torah, as the source of so many Big Questions. Who or what or why is this thing referred to as God? Must we take these stories literally? How can we possibly relate to a completely abstract concept? What can this mean to us as modern people? How might we understand God in this moment?

We cannot read the Creation story that we read this morning (second time this week, actually!) without facing these Big Questions.

I am going out on a limb here with what you might expect to be an unpopular notion, at least outside of this building: we need God. 

This is the fifth installment in an occasional series called, “I’m a Fundamentalist.” So far we have covered Shabbat, tallit, tefillin, and “refrigerator-magnet texts” – the best quotes from the Jewish bookshelf that you should really have on your refrigerator. Today’s Fundamentalist topic is God.

A former congregant on Long Island, one who was quite committed to Judaism once lamented to me the fact that her adult children were not very interested in Judaism. She told me that one of her sons had said, “Really, Mom, there’s no need for religion. There is no need for God. Because science has already figured almost everything out, and what it has not yet figured out, it will soon.”

I did not want to insult her son by saying that this is a particularly myopic view of the role of religion as well as a misunderstanding of what science is capable of explaining. But here are a few bullet points that I can share with you:

  • First, it is worth pointing out that science and religion address different questions. Scientific inquiry leads us to a better understanding of electron clouds, or how to cure terminal diseases; it might even describe where we came from. But it does not wrestle with the question of how to respond to somebody who is dying of a terminal disease, or offer a framework for grieving when that disease has run its course. New technology might enable us to choose the eye-color of our babies, let’s say, but it cannot make the argument about why we should or should not do so.
  • Second, what Judaism offers is community. It is learning together. It is breaking bread together. It is holding each other in times of need and celebrating in times of joy. Our tradition gives us the imperative to care not only about ourselves, but rather the others around us as well. Judaism gives us a guide to holy behavior, to sanctifying our relationships. And of course it gives us ritual – opportunities to act while we reflect on the values that we uphold. Science offers none of those things.
  • Third, Judaism offers us a glimpse of the Divine, and the opportunity to see the Godliness in the world around us. Yes, science may teach us that spewing carbon dioxide and methane and chlorofluorocarbons into the atmosphere will ultimately destroy our environment, but Judaism teaches us why we should care.

Many assume that reason and religion are antithetical.  I cannot speak for other faith traditions, but I know that reason was of utmost importance to Maimonides; Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, in his seminal work, God in Search of Man, points to the value of reason within Judaism. But Heschel cautions us that, “Extreme rationalism may be defined as the failure of reason to understand itself… The way to truth is an act of reason; the love of truth is an act of the spirit.” 

Rabbi Heschel’s argument is that reason and religion balance each other; we need both. He continues:  

… science is unable to give us all the truth about all of life. We are in need of spirit in order to know what to do with science… Reason’s goal is the exploration and verification of objective relations; religion’s goal is the exploration and verification of ultimate personal relations.

It is the synthesis of reason and religion that yields truth and righteousness. In The Nine Questions People Ask About Judaism, Dennis Prager and Joseph Telushkin point out how reason alone can be immoral. As an extreme example, they argue that those who followed the orders of the Nazi regime were acting reasonably:

When the average German citizen remained silent while his Jewish neighbors were shipped to concentration camps, he was acting entirely according to reason.

The ones who acted morally, to try to prevent the killing of their neighbors,  were themselves shot.

But Judaism marries reason to spirit. Our entire tradition is derived from interpreting our ancient texts for us today, even incorporating what science teaches us.

We need God so that we can take what we have learned about the world and apply it in a way that is just, that liberates people and does not oppress them; that lifts up the needy and raises the humble of spirit.

Let’s take a real-world example: consider the challenge that Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg has right now. Here is a guy who created a way, through the use of technology, to connect people to each other in a way that they had never connected before. And lo, how they have connected! Zuckerberg and his friends thought they were changing the world for the better.

And yet, in his appearance before a congressional committee a few days ago to discuss Facebook’s new crypto-currency, Mr. Zuckerberg had to apologize for the company’s “trust issues.” Why do people not trust Facebook? Because people’s information has not been kept confidential. Because the platform has contributed to political upheaval in countries around the world, including our own. Because human interaction cannot be a free-for-all; it must have limits. It must be truthful. 

Science and technology may open up many new pathways for us, but they will not tell us how to behave.

So that brings us back to the problem of God. From where do these boundaries flow? Certainly not from our smartphones. And not from us as individuals, because your boundaries and mine may not coincide.

They must flow from God. God is the one who gives us the limits, the standard by which we measure the truth.

But what is God? And how can I possibly believe in something that I cannot see or hear or feel? And, by the way, wasn’t God just for ancient people who had no other way of explaining where we came from? Haven’t we moved beyond that?

We need God today, as much as ever. No, we may not rely on God for rain, or fertility, or healthy crops, like our ancestors. We may not even see God as being the source of our prosperity (when we are prosperous) or our grief (when we are grieving). 

But we need God to understand what are our limits. What will prevent us from despoiling all of Creation, if not the sense that God gave it to us “le’ovdah ulshomrah,” (Bereshit / Genesis 2:15) to work it and to guard it? What will save us from the devolution of society due to the ease with which falsehood can be spread, if not for the mitzvot regarding telling the truth? What will ultimately prevent us from killing each other, if not for the standard that murder is wrong? 

It is all too easy today to look out for number one; to rationalize – to examine our bank statement and think, I’m OK – nothing to worry about. To talk ourselves out of going the extra distance for a fellow person in need because, eh, somebody else will take care of it. To live our lives in quiet, selfish anonymity. To think, I don’t need community, I don’t need ritual – I have everything I need.

But Judaism, and indeed the presence of God in our lives drives us to dig deeper, to reach out with two hands, to be the best individuals we can be.

And you know what? You do not need to accept any of the traditional understandings of God to do that. You do not need to believe that God created the world in six days, or that God dictated the Torah to Moshe on Mt. Sinai, or that God split the Sea of Reeds so that our ancestors could walk through on dry land. 

You can understand God as completely non-understandable. You can conceptualize God as having no concept. You can see God as a spirit that works through us and around us, as with Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, or as an imperceptible presence that is completely without condition, as with Martin Buber. Or you can come up with some other idea or metaphor for God that is nothing like anything else.

Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, whose writings became the basis of Reconstructionist Judaism

And yes, it is a challenge to accept the God idea in a world in which we seemingly have a rational explanation for everything. And, in a post-Sho’ah world, a world in which an angry Jew-hater with a gun can murder Jews at prayer, one must ask about the challenge of accounting for evil. But, as Rabbi Milton Steinberg argued, the one who believes in God must account for one thing, the existence of evil. The atheist, however, must account for the existence of everything else.

I will conclude with words of caution: once we let go of God entirely, we are lost. Humanity will destroy itself. There will be nothing to prevent us from killing each other. Recent history has demonstrated that those who think only of enriching themselves or amassing more power will inevitably allow or encourage other people to murder each other.

God is a check on that. We need God.

~

Rabbi Seth Adelson

(Originally delivered at Congregation Beth Shalom, Pittsburgh, PA, Shabbat morning, 10/26/2019.)